Florida is a large state, 65,758 square miles, surrounded by a 1,350-mile coastline, and, boy, Gary Monroe has traveled a lot of it looking for creative people. From the Silver Springs photographer who helped shape the Florida dream, to the Highwaymen artists who became icons of Sunshine State, Monroe played a key role in shaping our understanding of Sunshine State’s visual culture and heritage.
Now the Mennello Museum of American Art has taken Monroe’s experience to Central Florida in an exhibition entitled The Irresistible Desire to Create: Monroe’s Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art. On July 16, he will be at the program museum with exhibition curator Joanna Robotham and Menello’s Catherine Page.
Monroe began his career revealing an important history of Florida through his own visual art. A documentary photographer who is now retired three decades later as a professor at Daytona State College, he returned to his hometown of Miami Beach in 1977, just after receiving his master’s degree, and began documenting the disappearing world of adult Jewish retirees in South Beach.
“I was poor, I lived on breadcrumbs, but I shot with passion,” he told a Sentinel interviewer in 1988. He went through 6,000 rolls of film.
“You have to remember that South Beach was not a popular topic in Miami in the 1970s,” Monroe said in 1988. People didn’t frown at these dilapidated hotels. … No one took the time to realize that this was the last refuge for elderly Jews and Eastern Europeans. ”
However, Monroe learned that he was telling the story of people who came to Miami Beach after a long migration that began on Ellis Island and then settled throughout the country before coming to Florida in their final years. Some of his photographs depicting their world before he disappeared are in Monroe’s 2020 book, The Last Resort, Jewish South Beach, 1977-1986, published by the University Press of Florida.
By 2020, nearly two decades had passed since the publication of Monroe’s perhaps most famous book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, for the vaguely defined group of 26 artists who set out to sell their art. during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Robbers are now considered icons of Florida, but when Monroe’s book about them appeared in 2001, he aptly described the artists as “perhaps the last great untold story of modern Florida.”
I remember being mesmerized when I heard Monroe talk about the Robbers in 2001, describing how he learned about their story seemingly by accident. He had made a wrong turn from Interstate 95 and, on his way to Fort Pierce, had stopped for lunch at a restaurant called House of Food, owned by Hezekiah Baker, one of the robbers, and finally talked to several of the artists.
This lunch led not only to Monroe’s original book, Highwaymen, but also to several others for individual artists, including Harold Newton, Alfred Hare, Al Black, and Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the group.
Monroe has also written about other notable Florida visual artists, including EG Barnhill, whose toned photographs depict Florida in unearthly shades, and Bruce Mosert, whose underwater photographs at Silver Springs present the magic of the state through a unique vision.
Monroe also continued his quest to find self-taught artists who led him to Highwaymen and led him to the exhibition in Mennello. These artists did not follow rules on how to make art. “They didn’t even know the rules,” Monroe said.
Some, like Melvin “Pop” Tyrer of Seville, even deny being artists, Monroe recalls. “I’m coming up with something and I’ll see if I can,” Tyrer told Monroe about the imaginary, wind-powered merry-go-rounds he created from discarded objects.
In such conversations, Monroe “developed remarkable relationships with many self-taught artists, who are often isolated from society, documenting their ambitions and creations, as well as their diverse experiences,” notes Paige, curator of Mennello. “He photographed them and wrote their biographies so that the unobstructed works of art by Outsider artists in Florida could be appreciated by the general public, included in the canon of self-taught artists, and not forgotten.”
“Irresistible Desire to Create: The Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art” is on display at the Museum of American Art in Orlando Mennello until Oct. 16 at 900 E. Princeton St. For details, visit MennelloMuseum.org or call 407-246-4278.
On July 16 at 11 a.m., the museum will present “The Art of Florida Abroad: A Conversation” with Monroe, Robtham and Paige. Tickets are $ 10 ($ 5 for members). To register, send an email to Rebecca Raia at [email protected] or call 407-246-4278.
You can contact Joy Wallace Dickinson at [email protected],, FindingJoyinFlorida.comor by good old-fashioned letter to the Florida Flashback, c / o Dickinson, PO Box 1942, Orlando, FL 32802.